7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Trebor Healey

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by novelist Trebor Healey) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: Trebor is excited to give away a free copy of his novel, FAUN, to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: LynnFlickinger1 won.)



Recipient of the 2004 Ferro-Grumley and Violet Quill awards for
his first novel, Through It Came Bright Colors, Trebor Healey is
also the author of the novel, A Horse Named Sorrow. His latest
novel is FAUN (Lethe, Oct. 2012), which Publishers Weekly said
“will appeal strongly to grown fans of supernatural YA.”

1. Be bold. Write about absolutely everything. Especially things that make you feel uncomfortable. You don’t have to share it if you don’t want to, but you might be surprised to find your boldest voice is often your most attractive one. I’ve found this to be true in several cases. It can also lead to breakthroughs as boldness effectively overcomes the inner critic/editor and sets loose the inner maniac, who is very much worth listening to!

2. Do other art or view other art. Sometimes what inspires breakthroughs in writing is creativity expressed non-verbally. Dance, painting, architecture, photography, film. For me I think modern dance is the best as it gets me out of my head completely and puts me in the flow. The idea is to access your right brain from another angle. But it also enriches your work. I do collage and I find it a great complement to writing as it’s a similar form but without words.

(How to help an author promote their new book: 11 tips.)

3. Use public transportation and talk to strangers. There’s a wealth of material out there on the bus. It’s where I learned about dog exorcism and the training regimen of a boxer. You can even try out your own characters with random people. You can be anybody on a bus—it’s quite liberating. Use it as a classroom and approach people who you might never meet in your daily routine. And listen, listen. I guarantee you if you just ride a bus around for an hour, a short story or two will emerge.

4. Exercise, recreate. They don’t call it recreation for nothing.  When you’re stuck, uninspired, struggling with a character or scene, I think the absolute best thing you can do is go grab some fresh air and get your blood moving, preferably in nature. But a swimming pool will do, even a run, and especially a sauna. You can get to a mini trance that is ideal for breakthroughs, along the lines of a dream. This is one reason for the sweat lodge tradition in many indigenous cultures:

5. Travel, move, shake it up. If a hike or swim or sauna doesn’t prove enough—and there was a time it didn’t for me—go on an adventure if you can. I went to Argentina for a year and it so rearranged my head that I had multiple creative breakthroughs and was able to finish two books. There is something about being in a new place that heightens your senses and wakes you up and opens you up. It’s hugely valuable. But do avoid tourist destinations as they re-create the somnolence you’re trying to escape. The point is to step out of your comfort zone and see the world anew. Go alone if you can.

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6. Learn another language. I’d been a student of Spanish for years but it wasn’t until I made up my mind to become fluent that I realized its benefit to me as a writer. To be able to communicate in another language gets you thinking about how you can best communicate in your own, and how best to say what you want to say.  To begin to understand your own language as a particular set of tools that can create something beautiful is not only inspiring, but empowering and enlightening. Studies have also shown bilingualism is good for your brain as you learn to cognitively jump back and forth, which is why there’s also evidence it prevents Alzheimer’s.

7. Celebrate your success. Too often writers don’t. And it doesn’t mean you have to have a party. I sometimes think a reading tour is the best way to enjoy the publication of a book. The key is to do the tour on your own terms. I rarely fly because airports are a drag. I grab a chunk of time, rent a car and visit friends in faraway places so that it ends up a celebration not just of the book, but of my life and how I like to live it. The open road can be so inspiring. This was the point of being a writer for me: to be a traveling bard. Whatever it is you want from being a writer, grab that and live it as your reward for having done the work.

GIVEAWAY: Trebor is excited to give away a free copy of his novel, FAUN, to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (Update: LynnFlickinger1 won.)


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13 thoughts on “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Trebor Healey

  1. Kia24

    Absolutely fantastic tips! Thank you so much for sharing!

    I particularly love the idea of testing out a character on the bus. I often find myself using public transportation to visit friends and while I observe quite a bit and get to know strangers for character inspiration, I have never thought to take that particular spin on the interaction. Testing out characters could be more than fun, it could help us find holes in our stories or stale traits in our characters. I honestly can’t wait to try this out!

    – K. Knightley

  2. georgia t.

    great tips for a new writer like myself! i love the first one because my writing is very bold…it’s a little scary because i expose my sailors cursing and things I’m interested in, to people i’ve know but don’t know this side of me (and i’m not talking sexually bold..just bold writing, joking about serious subject matter especially). The 2nd piece of advice, i totally agree on as a guitar player and song writer. what you did do here is give me a great idea for including self drawn pictures in my upcoming blog! thanks!!

  3. wlrutherford

    I can personally testify to #3, (and #1 for that matter).

    I was riding the bus one winter morning and the man sitting across from me was telling the man beside me about how his geeky High School friend had wooed and married one of the prettiest girls in school. It was an interesting story, the likes of which I hadn’t heard before. Coincidentally I also happened to be blocked that week trying to write a sci-fi story for our upcoming writer’s group anthology.

    When I got home that bit of conversation inspired a fairly romantic short story that practically wrote itself. How else can I explain how my sci-fi story became a love story? At first I hated it — I don’t do romance! But the more I read it the more I liked it. I’d ruthlessly edited it until I felt every remaining word was necessary and was surprised that this made the story much better; better pace, better suspense, clearer. Less sometimes really is more.

    Long story short, when the anthology was published I was honored that the group nominated my story to open the book. I’m kinda proud of that story, the first thing I’d written that I’ve seen in print, and it all began with a bus ride.

    [ If you’re curious the book is available on Amazon – “Out Of Darkness Into The Light” by the Fairbanks Community Writer’s Group. ]

  4. KristenK

    All good points, Trebor. When we’re stuck at the screen, our brains (well, at least mine) gets stuck on repeat–sort of like the old record players that hits a skip. When that happens to me, the first thing I do is exercise. If the weather allows, a bike ride or a hike is the ticket. I always take a pad of paper to write because solutions OFTEN pop up on those mini escapes. While a year in another locale would be wonderful, parks and places closer to home are just as helpful. As for learning another language, I don’t have much time for that, but my daughter is studying Arabic so I’m learning some great words and phrases from her!


  5. cjvinal

    I really liked the suggestion about writing outside of your comfort zone – and not feeling that you have to share it. One of the greatest struggles in writing is trying to do it with that critic reading over your shoulder!

    Airport cafes and bars can be great places to find inspiration as well. You are in a different environment and, like public transportation, you can be anybody and meet anybody in an airport cafe.

    Great article, thanks!

  6. KarenLange

    I love these points, thanks, Trebor! Point #1 hits home, as I’ve been thinking I need to stretch more in this area. Number 4 is especially helpful, too. Even if I’m not stuck, it just helps clear the cobwebs and energize me.

  7. HuffmanHanni

    I think the theme of these suggestions is to get out and live a little every once in a while. That it is good for your well-being but your craft as well. I think it’s interesting that instead of solely focusing on the technical aspects of writing, he chose to focus on having a life instead. Makes sense if you look at a life like Hemingway’s. A rich source of material.

    I think the first one is great for new writers as well as someone who has been doing it for years and feels a little bit stuck in a rut. It’s similar to another piece of advice I’d read about trying out a new genre.

    I might try the public transportation thing although I don’t think I’m comfortable talking to stranger. Too much of an introvert for that. However, I have flirted with the idea of maybe taking an acting class as a way to see how actors get into character which might be helpful for generating characters.

  8. Chuck Sambuchino Post author

    Kimberly J. Brown [survivor35w@gmail.com] had trouble leaving a comment, but she wanted to say she enjoyed the article very much.

    NOTE TO COMMENTERS: Recently, WD installed aggressive security measures to protect its WordPress websites. Unfortunately, this makes leaving comments more difficult and people sometimes try to leave comments now, only for the site to strangely say, “You are posting comments too quickly. Slow down.” We are sorry for this hassle. If you get this message, simply try again to leave the comment in 1 hour or 1 day. Sooner or later, the comment will take. Most giveaways here last 2 weeks, so there is usually time to return and re-paste your copied comment.

    (In fact, I tried three times to leave this comment during a two-minute span, and it took on the third try.)

  9. dakopyc

    Thanks for these, Trebor — they sound like great tips, as indeed (as the above commenter said) these are great “methods to break-through” for all creative work, IMMHO — whether it be writing or anything else that requires an active cultivation to produce great work (well, hmm, aside from, I suppose, art-forms or styles that can be completely internal). With the definition of “great work” as… stuff that other people can “really read” and which grabs and grips them (in a visceral way) — i.e. it gives them something they can relate to, draw from, or learn from (even, say, as a vicarious experience that they wouldn’t have themselves, in their own lives).

    I really like these tips — and I can certainly vouch for the “foreign language” one as a tool that has changed my own life. Of course, studying a foreign tongue is a great way to “go deeper” into ones own native language — in making one aware of subtle aspects of diction and expression that we would normally take for granted — but also, unexpectedly, I find myself “composing” things in my new, fledgling tongue, that would never occur to me in the one that I’ve grown up with.

    It’s kind of like a chance to “be a child again” — because in that “space” of the new tongue, it’s very empty — a blank canvas. It’s just me and this (limited!) palette of words that I know in the new language — and somehow that can be such freedom (!!) — really, it’s rather uncanny. It would be interesting to chat with a real linguist about this, but perhaps this “freedom” comes because we can’t second-guess ourselves at every turn while in the midst of composition?

    In other words, without all the “baggage” of connotation that hangs on every single word we might use in our native speech, it’s suddenly easier to say simply what we “mean” — in an innocent and direct way? Granted, I’m sure my little “toddler art” in a new language might sound a bit “odd” (and maybe dismissible) to a native speaker — but no matter, it’s a great exercise, I think, as the result (even if only sheer encouragement?) is probably reflected back into subsequent writing in our native one as well.

    Anyways, thanks for putting this together — great stuff, my friend — and I hope to get back to my writing too — maybe finally “birth” some of my “half-baked” pieces out into the real world! 😉

    Hmm, maybe that’s a topic for another blog post? Tips for how to get your stuff “out from under the pile” and back onto your workbench? I guess that just requires discipline, right? ;))



  10. salmas2

    Im not a writer but this is extremely interesting. I think those 7 things can also help non-writers as well.

    With regards to the first point. You mentioned that “You don’t have to share it if you don’t want to, but you might be surprised to find your boldest voice is often your most attractive one.”

    Will you please provide an example of that.



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